The Consensus 100 Greatest War Movies

May 2011
New Iberia, La.
28. Spartacus (1960)

SYNOPSIS: "Spartacus" is an Old School epic based on the famous Spartacus rebellion during the Roman Empire. Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a gladiator trainee who leads an escape from a training school. He has a romance with a slave named Varinia (Jean Simmons). He and his slave army attempt to take ship out of Italy while Roman dictator wannabe Crassus (Laurence Olivier) manuevers to prevent this. Roman Senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton) schemes politically against Crassus.

BACK-STORY: “Spartacus” is a famous historical epic released in 1960. It is based on the book by Howard Fast. Kirk Douglas was fascinated by the novel and wanted to ease his disappointment over losing the starring role in “Ben Hur”. He recruited Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov. When Fast proved unable to make the jump to screenwriter, noted commie Dalton Trumbo was brought in. This was a daring move as Trumbo was, at that time, blacklisted as a member of the Hollywood Ten. He had run afoul of the House Unamerican Activities Committee during McCarthyism and was writing screenplays under pseudonyms. After completion of the film, Douglas insisted Trumbo be credited by his real name – a move that ended the blacklisting movement. Kudos! The first director (Anthony Mann) did not meet Douglas’ standards so he was replaced by Stanley Kubrick. It was not exactly smooth sailing after the change. The massive egos of the stars made each scene difficult. Kubrick looked back on the film with far from fond memories. Based on his recollections, you would think the movie was terrible. He wanted the movie to be more gritty and less a hagiography. He wanted more battle scenes, but test audiences reacted negatively (boo!). The movie was the most expensive to date ($12 million). It was Universal Studio’s biggest money maker until “Airport” ten years later. It won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Ustinov), Art Direction, Costume Design, and Cinematography (Russell Metty). Metty was upset that Kubrick often overruled him on shots and actually Kubrick did most of the cinematography, he still accepted the Oscar. It was nominated for Editing and Score. It won the Golden Globe for Best Drama, one of the rare winners that was not even nominated for Best Picture. The winner that year was “The Apartment” (94% on Rotten Tomatoes). The other nominees were “Elmer Gantry” (97%), “Sons and Lovers” (75%), “The Sundowners” (80%), and “The Alamo” (50%). “Spartacus” has a 96%.
It is #5 on AFI’s list of greatest epics. #81 on the list of greatest films. Spartacus is the #22 hero.

TRIVIA: Wikipedia, TCM, imdb, Spartacus: Film and History by Martin Winkler, ed., I am Spartacus! by Kirk Douglas

1. The Catholic Legion of Decency put pressure on Universal to cut shot of severing of limbs. drowning in soup, blood spurting on Crassus when he kills Draba, and hints of homosexuality (“oysters and snails”)

2. Novelist Howard Fast wrote the source novel. He was a communist and went to prison for contempt of Congress. In prison, he began researching the life of Spartacus. Upon release, he was under surveillance from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Hoover accumulated over one thousand pages in his file. When the novel was finished, Hoover put pressure on publishers to not publish it. Fast ended up self-publishing. Later, Fast broke with the Communist Party after Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s crimes. Douglas became interested in a film about Spartacus and optioned the book for just $100, but Fast insisted on writing the screenplay. Douglas agreed, but was skeptical of Fast’s ability to write a competent screenplay. Douglas was right. Fast’s first draft was terrible and Douglas secretly brought in Trumbo who was writing under the name Sam Jackson.

3. The movie almost did not get made because there was already a movie about Spartacus in production. It was to be based on the novel “The Gladiators” and was to star Yul Brynner.

4. The first choice for Varinia was Jeanne Moreau (Christine in “The Train”), but she turned it down. Jean Simmons (a friend of Douglas) pushed hard for the role, but Douglas insisted that he wanted an actress that did not have an English or American accent. He ended up settling on an unknown German beauty named Sabine Bethmann. Kubrick convinced Douglas to dump Bethmann by proving to him that she was incapable of showing emotion. (Her movie career collapsed after this.) Simmons got her chance and it worked out even though the production was set back when she had a health crisis that lasted five weeks.

5. Kubrick was a prick to work with. At one point, the horse-bound Douglas physically threatened him in order to get him to stop wearing the same clothes every day. They had several major disagreements on the script. For instance, Kubrick did not want to include the “I am Spartacus!” scene! Douglas insisted on it, thank God. Douglas was apoplectic when he learned that all his time on the crucifix ended up on the cutting room floor. He was not going to be seen in that final scene. Douglas won on that one also. On the other hand, Douglas was concerned about having to say the line: “I have never had a woman”. He felt it would result in giggles from the audience. It didn’t.

6. The biggest dispute was over the overarching theme of the movie. Douglas and Trumbo wanted the “Large Spartacus” - the slave revolt was a major threat to the Roman Republic and after winning several spectacular victories, was overwhelmed by three Roman armies. Kubrick and the studio wanted the “Small Spartacus” - Spartacus led a jail break that only had the goal of escaping from Italy, but was defeated by one Roman army. After the first underwhelming rough cut, Trumbo wrote a brilliant critique which steered the film back towards the Large Spartacus. However, Universal had the final cut and we ended up with Medium Spartacus.

7. Douglas broke Charles McGraw’s (the trainer) jaw when filming the soup-drowning scene. The cut that appears in the movie involves a stunt double.

8. Universal made 42 cuts to the movie before releasing it. These included: no severing pf an arm, we don’t see Gracchus suicide (which has since been lost due to poor treatment of the prints), no montage of other battles (not even the map and narration), and of course, no “snails and oysters” scene. In general, the studio cuts reduced Spartacus’ historical significance because the powers did not want the rebellion to appear to have had a chance to succeed. This might have inspired communists!

9. The “snails and oysters” scene was discovered years later, but the audio was so bad it had to be recreated. Tony Curtis came in to do his lines again, but Olivier had passed away so Anthony Hopkins did his voice, extremely well.

10. Because of Trumbo’s involvement, Hedda Hopper (an influential conservative commentator) and John Wayne urged a boycott. The American Legion organized picket lines, but Pres. Kennedy crossed one to see the picture.

Belle and Blade = N/A
Brassey’s = 4.0
Video Hound = N/A
War Movies = N/A
Military History = #41
Channel 4 = #25
Film Site = yes
101 War Movies = no
Rotten Tomatoes = #15

OPINION: “Spartacus” is one of the all-time great epic films. It has all the ingredients necessary for grand entertainment. It has action, suspense, romance, and a little humor. The acting is stellar and the score is outstanding. The plot is well thought out. The dialogue is crisp.

With a cast such as it is, no surprise the acting is great. Kirk Douglas is perfect in the role and it is obvious he put his soul into the role. The heavyweights (Olivier, Ustinov, and Laughton) do not disappoint and they chew the scenery less than you would expect. Ustinov is especially effective as Batiatus. He justifiably earned the Best Supporting Actor trophy. Some of the minor characters shine. Charles McGraw is great as the menacing trainer.

The romance is well done. I’m not much for mushy stuff, but if Kirk Douglas is okay with the script – fine with me. Jean Simmons is excellent as Varinia. Their opening scene is powerful, although unrealistic. It introduces the characters well. Compare their chaste relationship to the sexual escapades on the recent Starz series (which I am a big fan of) if you want to see how far morals have come since 1960. That series clearly answers the question “what would Hollywood do with Spartacus if it was remade today?” Conversely, how about that “snails and oysters” scene? There is an example of how Hollywood was too prudish in 1960.

One flaw in the movie is the lack of actual combat. Spartacus fought numerous battles with the Romans, but only one is depicted. It is pretty standard in an epic of this type to have a victory in the first half and a loss at the end. The skipping over the attack on Glabrus’ camp is head-scratching. As much as I despise “Braveheart” (Gibson clearly was inspired by “Spartacus”), it does a better job on this. Another problem is that the final battle is overrated. It has ridiculous elements (the fire rollers) and does not accurately depict Roman tactics.

In conclusion, “Spartacus” is great entertainment, but is it a great war movie? Its closest comparison would be to “Braveheart” which it is infinitely superior to. “Spartacus” is a good example of how you can tamper with history and not make it ridiculous. It seems appropriately judged at #28.
May 2011
New Iberia, La.
27. Alexander Nevsky (1938)

SYNOPSIS: "Alexander Nevsky" is a Soviet film by the great Sergei Eisenstein that was made in anticipation of war with Nazi Germany. It tells the tale of the Russian hero of the 13th Century. Alexander was a nobleman who had fought the Mongols and was now called on to lead the people against the invading Teutonic Knights of Germany. The movie is based on true events, but includes two romantic subplots for the ladies. It culminates in one of the great battle scenes in war movie history - the battle on the frozen lake.

BACK-STORY: It came thirteen years after Sergei Eisenstein’s other masterpiece “Battleship Potemkin”. The film is most famous for two elements: the battle on the ice and Sergei Prokofiev’s score. Some scenes in the picture were cut to match the score. The film was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1941 and Eisenstein (and the co-director) was given the Order of Lenin by Stalin. Speaking of Stalin, he was shown a rough cut of the film and either did not like a scene showing a riot of the citizens of Novgorod or the reel was accidentally left behind so it was not vetted by the supreme ruler. Either way, the reel was left out of the final cut.

TRIVIA: Wikipedia, imdb

1. It was Sergei Eisenstein’s first sound film.
2. He chose to do a film on Nevsky because little was known about him so Eisenstein hoped to be able to structure the narrative the way he wanted. He was not given the free rein that he had hoped for. For this film he was kept on a short leash as the Soviet government wanted to make sure it got the propaganda product it commissioned. Eisenstein was assigned a co-writer and co-director to look over his shoulder and make sure he did not get too creative. The co-writer was probably a KGB agent.
3. The iced lake scenes were filmed outside Moscow in the dead of summer. The cinematographer went to remarkable lengths to create the lake setting. The ice was actually asphalt and melted glass. The fake ice rested on floating pontoons that could be deflated on cue.
4. The film was removed from circulation after the Russo-German Non-Aggression Pact made the Soviet Union and Germany friends. When Germany attacked, the movie was put back in every theater.

Belle and Blade = N/A
Brassey’s = 5.0
Video Hound = 3.1
War Movies = N/A
Military History = #5
Channel 4 = #74
Film Site = no
101 War Movies = no
Rotten Tomatoes = no

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is surprisingly accurate. Of course, you have to factor in that Alexander is a legendary figure so we can’t be sure about all of the facts. Alexander was born the son of a prince. In 1236 the people of Novgorod asked the fifteen year old prince to defend them against the Swedes and the Germans. He defeated the Swedes at the Battle of Neva in 1240. From this triumph, he acquired the sobriquet “Nevsky”. However, after the victory the boyars (nobles) forced him into exile. This is the situation when the movie begins.

The scene with the Mongols is an interpretation of Alexander’s relationship with the Golden Horde. He has been accused of collaboration, but the movie is probably close in interpreting him as realizing that the other threats needed to be dealt with and the Mongols were not threatening Russian culture. He felt paying tribute to the Mongols was the right choice among bad choices. The movie does a fair job showing how Alexander was called back to Novgorod after the fall of Pskov to the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights. The Novgorodians had a democratic custom called veche where the merchants and boyars would openly discuss a proposal such as bringing in a sixteen year old to rule them.

The Teutonic Knights were a German military order created in the Middle Ages. It was formed to aid pilgrims going to the Holy Land and established hospitals in the Middle East. The organization evolved into a military order. When the Crusades ended in failure, they took their act to Europe to defend Catholicism. Dressed in white robes with black crosses, they participated in crusades with a small c. They fought in Prussia and became a major power there. The Livonian Brothers of the Sword was created using the Teutonic model. Its goal was spreading Catholicism to the Baltic states. In 1237, it merged with the Teutonic Knights and became the Livonian Order. Subsequently, their knights expanded eastward into Russia with the intention of conquering Novgorod. They were led by a Grand Master as depicted in the film.

The Germans did capture Pskov and the occupation was probably harsh, although baby burning may have been an exaggeration. They were definitely religious and had all the trappings, but power, wealth, and territory were strong motives behind the invasion. No doubt they evidenced the religious intolerance typical of that time period. They certainly were intolerant of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

There is some dispute about what happened in the Battle of the Ice. The battle (officially the Battle of Lake Preipus) was a confrontation as the Germans marched on Novgorod. The tactic of Alexander was to lure the Knights into a frontal attack on his center. He may have feigned retreat or more likely the cavalry attack pushed his center back. At this point, Alexander assaulted the German flanks with his archers and when fresh Russian cavalry entered the battle, the Germans were routed. They retreated across the iced-over lake and many drowned when the ice collapsed under them. Some historians question the high casualty totals for the Germans and some even doubt that the famous ice cracking happened. Alexander’s closing admonition that anyone who comes to Russia with a sword will die by the sword is a repeat of his famous quote.

OPINION: This is an Eisenstein film so you can prepare to be wowed by his craft. The movie pairs the genius of Eisenstein up with the genius of Prokofiev. The score has been universally lauded. To tell the truth, I found it to be a bit bizarre.

The acting is meh. Cherkasov is a walking statue. In fact, he resembles a statue of Alexander. He spends much of the film with his hands on his hips a la Superman. The best of the cast are the two females. Vera Ivashova is a bit feisty as the love interest for Vasily and Gavrilo. Aleksandra Danilova plays the tom-boyish Vasilisa well and either by purpose or lack of training, fights like a girl in the battle.

“Alexander Nevsky” could not have been more propagandistic than if they had tried. Oh wait, they did try! And succeeded. The themes are not subtle. Clerics in general and Catholics in particular take a beating. The movie is not atheistic (Alexander even quotes Scripture at one point), but the Catholics are demonized to a cartoonish extent. Speaking of demonization, even today’s current events challenged younger generation would have been able to figure out that the movie is about the Nazi threat. It is obvious that the movie was made to warn the Russian people about the 1930s version of the Teutonic Knights.

In conclusion, I know I will take some grief for this, but this movie is overrated. I recognize that it is a masterpiece and a must see, but it does not hold up in comparison to modern classics. If you are looking at a war film purely for quality, it is disappointing. The best way I can explain this conundrum is to look at the famous battle scene. Eisenstein’s staging of the Battle of the Ice is very influential and has been copied by films like “Spartacus” and “Braveheart”. The plain fact is that although “Alexander Nevsky” did it first, no one with a right mind can argue that it does it better than most (all?) of its modern imitators. I despise “Braveheart”, but Mel Gibson’s battle scene is certainly more realistic and entertaining than Eisenstein’s.
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May 2011
New Iberia, La.
26. The Big Red One (1980)

SYNOPSIS: "The Big Red One" is a small unit movie set in WWII Europe. It follows the adventures of a crusty veteran sergeant (Lee Marvin) and his squad of four G.I.s plus a parade of expendables. They campaign through North Africa, Sicily, France, and into Germany. They participate in the Battle of Kasserine Pass, D-Day, the Huertgen Forest, and help liberate a concentration camp. It's all at the squad level and is basically a series of vignettes.

BACK-STORY: The movie is loosely based on the writer/director Samuel Fuller’s experiences with the 1st Division in WWII. The character Zab (Robert Carradine) represents Fuller. The movie was released in 1980 with a substantial amount left on the cutting room floor. In 2004, the director’s cut was released almost doubling the length of the film. The movie stars Lee Marvin in arguably his best role. Marvin was a veteran of WWII, having served in the Marines and was wounded at Saipan.

1. Samuel Fuller was a WWII veteran and some of the vignettes were based on his experiences. He participated in the North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy invasions. He served in Belgium and Czechslovakia. He was there for the liberation on Falkenau concentration camp. He was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart.
2. “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction” premiered at Cannes seven years after Fuller’s death. It has 47 additional minutes.
3. Two particular incidents from Fuller’s war experiences are included. When Zab (who represents Fuller in the movie) is playing basketball and sees Keiser reading his book and when Zab is a runner on Omaha Beach.
4. Warner Brothers wanted to make the movie in the 1950s (with John Wayne as the sergeant). Fuller’s “Merrill’s Marauders” was preparation for it. However, when Fuller protested the cuts the studio insisted on for MM, the project got dropped because of bad blood.
5. The movie was shot in Israel to save money. The concentration camp guards were played by Israeli soldiers.
6. Lee Marvin was 54 at the time. Mighty old for a sergeant. He supervised the mini boot camp the younger actors went through. On their way to a shooting range via taxi with Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward, Marvin opened with “**** you, Carradine”. Later when Robert asked him why he did this Marvin said “Yours was the only name I recognized”.
7. It was Fuller’s first film in eleven years.
8. Marvin was a Marine veteran of WWII in the Pacific. His wounding in the movie was reminiscent of his wounding in the war. He was wounded on Saipan when a bullet severed his sciatic nerve. He was soon after hit in the foot by a sniper. He spent over a year in hospitals.

Belle and Blade = N/A
Brassey’s = 5.0
Video Hound = 5.0
War Movies = 3.8
Military History = #71
Channel 4 = #98
Film Site = no
101 War Movies = yes
Rotten Tomatoes = #56

ACCURACY: “The Big Red One” is a personal story and a small unit tale, so historical accuracy is not really a factor. Two minor incidents are based on Fuller’s experiences: when Zab discovers Keiser reading a novel written by Zab and when Zab acts as a runner to inform their colonel that they have broken through on Omaha Beach. That’s pretty puny to back up the claim that the movie is based on fact. Much of the historical incidents are handled in a simplistic manner. For example, the Torch invasion where the French open fire, but once their commander is killed, it's all hugs and kisses between the new allies. One could argue that the landing at Omaha Beach was much busier and complex than the movie implies, but the low budget of the film and the emphasis on following just five soldiers makes that a moot point. The 1st Division did fight in the different locales shown in the film. It did liberate the concentration camp. The arms and equipment (with the exception of the German tanks) are authentic.

OPINION: “The Big Red One” plays as a series of weird vignettes. They are all interesting and move the narrative along and although each of them may have been based on an actual incident, it is highly unlikely than any squad would have had all these incidents happen to them. In fact, some of the scenes (e.g., the tank birth) seem unlikely to have happened to anyone. The movie gets cred because supposedly it is autobiographical, but it is telling that the companion book by Fuller is a novel.

The film is strongest in its depiction of soldier life. The dialogue rings true. The relationships are realistic, including the paternal attitude of the sergeant and the core group's refusal to bond with replacements. Fuller throws in little details that make the movie feel authentic. Things like the condoms on the rifle barrels, salt peter in the food to lower libido, and an “appearance” by “Axis Sally”.

Fuller has a sparse style. Some scenes end abruptly. It gives the movie something of an episodic feel. One begins to wonder what mess the squad will get into next. The battles are small-scale and end quickly. The battles are meant to be gritty, but the movie is firmly in the old school style, pre-“Saving Private Ryan”. One problem is the important theme of Griff’s (Mark Hammill) cowardice is never resolved. Another theme, war is brutal and arbitrary in dealing out death, is undercut by the survival of all five. In fact, only the sergeant even gets wounded. The movie would have much more powerful if one of the five had been killed. The deaths of most replacements are exaggerated, the invulnerability of the five is unrealistic.

In conclusion, “The Big Red One” is an entertaining and in many ways amusing war movie. Marvin is marvelous and the young actors are competent. It does a good job of informing the viewer about what it was like to be in a rifle squad in the 1st Division in WWII. However, on close examination, the movie does not hold up well. Much of it is implausible. This would be less of an issue if the movie was not touted as based on Fuller’s experiences. It's a fun movie, but undoubtedly overrated by many critics. On a personal note, I was very fond of this movie when it first came out but I find that each time I watch it I see more flaws.
May 2011
New Iberia, La.
25. The General (1925)

SYNOPSIS: Buster Keaton plays a Southern railroad engineer during the Civil War. His beloved locomotive called "The General" is stolen by Union commandoes and Keaton attempts to get it back in a series of comic adventures. The movie was inspired by the Andrews Raid.

BACK-STORY: “The General” is Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, although it took a while for the critics and public to realize that. The movie was a commercial and critical bomb when it was released in 1926. Thankfully Keaton lived to see the revival of its reputation in the 1960s. Recently the American Film Institute ranked it the 18th greatest film and the 18th greatest comedy (don’t ask). This must have been heartening since he co-wrote, co-directed, and co-produced it. He based it on "The Great Locomotive Chase" by William Pittenger. Keaton used 500 Ohio National Guardsmen for the battle scene and even had them switch uniforms to give the armies more size.

TRIVIA: Wikipedia, IMDB, TCM

1. It was based on the memoir “The Great Locomotive Chase” by William Pittenger. Pittenger was a Yankee, but Buster Keaton insisted on the main character being a Southerner because he thought there would be more sympathy for the South. Keaton loved trains and had read the book when his partner suggested he make the movie.
2. Producer Joseph Schenk gave Keaton a huge budget of $400,000, which Keaton proceeded to blow up to possibly $750,000. The studio was none to happy when the movie turned into a box office and critical failure and Keaton lost a lot of power over his future films.
3. Keaton wanted to film on location and wanted to use the actual “General” which was on display in Chattanooga. The caretakers were at first open to the idea until they found out the movie was a comedy. The film was actually shot in Oregon because some old railroad lines and trains were located there. Keaton purchased two trains for the action scenes and one train for the crash. Eighteen box cars were needed to transport the equipment, props, set pieces, etc. to the location. The town of Marietta, Georgia was recreated.
4. 500 members of the Oregon National Guard were used for soldiers. They would charge in Union uniforms, then change and charge the other way in Confederate uniforms.
5. The wreck of the Texas cost $42,000 making it he most costly shot in silent movie history. Thousands of locals came to watch and were horrified because the dummy portraying the engineer was so life-like. The wreck stayed at the bottom of the river until brought up for scrap in WWII.
6. The movie premiered in two small theaters in Tokyo.
7. It is #18 in the 10th Anniversary edition of AFI’s 100 greatest films. It was not on the original list! It is #18 on the 100 Laughs list.
8. It is Keaton’s favorite film.

Belle and Blade = N/A
Brassey’s = 4.0
Video Hound = 5.0
War Movies = N/A
Military History = #42
Channel 4 = #65
Film Site = yes
101 War Movies = yes
Rotten Tomatoes = no

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is actually fairly accurate in depicting the famous Andrews Raid in the Civil War. James Andrews and a group of Yankee volunteers hijacked "The General" at Big Shanty in April, 1862. The plan was to damage the rail line and to facilitate the Union offensive against Chattanooga. William Allen Fuller gave chase after his engine on foot, then hand-cart, then on the locomotive "Yonah" and later the "William R. Smith". Meanwhile, Andrews’ men were doing the damage depicted in the movie. Broken tracks forced Fuller back on foot until he acquired the "Texas". Fuller had to drive the "Texas" backwards, but he did gain ground on the "General".

Andrews’ mission ended in failure because Fuller’s dogged pursuit did not leave him time to effectively destroy the rail line. There was some bad luck involved as well. For instance, the attempt to burn a key bridge failed because the wood was wet from a recent rain. A flaming boxcar left on the bridge was pushed off by Fuller. Just a few miles from Chattanooga, the "General" ran out of fuel. Andrews and his men abandoned it and fled on foot, but they all were captured and treated as spies. Andrews and seven of the men were executed. Eight later escaped and six were exchanged. The first Medal of Honor were awarded to the Andrews Raiders.

OPINION: We are told that “The General” is a masterpiece, but if you weren’t told this you might miss that fact. It strikes me as more of a curio than a masterpiece. Although it holds up much better than most silent movies, I feel modern war movie lovers will wonder what all the fuss is about. It helps to know the effort that Keaton put into it – the National Guardsmen, the train crash, etc. It is impressive to realize that Keaton did all his own stunts. The movie is also admirably authentic in its weapons, uniforms, and equipment. And you learn how a train works which is a nice touch.

The movie has a lack of subtitles which forces the watcher to concentrate. That is a plus to me, but a turnoff to others. The cinematography is fine. The acting is spotty. Keaton, of course, is brilliant with his stoical persona. However, the supporting cast is your typical overly emotive silent movie actors. Mack (Keaton's girlfriend Annabelle) is particularly weak. The second chase is tedious and recycles elements from the first chase.

The big question is whether the movie is funny. Well, it is certainly not funny enough to be ranked the 18th funniest movie of all time. Most of the slapstick is on the silly side. There is a lot of falling down. Some of the sight gags are amazing. This includes the iconic sight of Keaton sitting on the drive shaft between the wheels as the train moves. The movie made me smile in spots, but seldom laugh. One of the funnier aspects of the film is how roughly Johnnie treats Annabelle. At least I think that was supposed to be funny. Keaton deserves credit for seamlessly blending the comedy into the narrative. The gags are not just thrown in to add humor periodically.

In conclusion, “The General” is a must-see movie and war movie, but it does not hold up well compared to the great modern war movies. It is very overrated.
May 2011
New Iberia, La.
24. Stalingrad (1992)

SYNOPSIS: "Stalingrad" is a bleak film about a German squad caught in the Russian city towards the end of the siege. The men attempt to survive the increasingly desperate conditions. They face not only the enemy, but the snow, the lack of food, and the breakdown in morale and discipline.

BACK-STORY: “Stalingrad” was a major German production released in 1993. It was directed by Joseph Vilsmaier. It is in the German language. I found nothing of particular interest anecdotally.

Belle and Blade = 5.0
Brassey’s = 4.0
Video Hound = N/A
War Movies = N/A
Military History = #23
Channel 4 = #58
Film Site = no
101 War Movies = yes
Rotten Tomatoes = no

The movie is fictional and does not attempt to give an overview of the battle. It could be set in any number of urban combat scenarios. As a depiction of the trials of a typical squad of Germans caught up in the battle, it is fairly accurate. The weapons and equipment are authentic. There are bits of history within the fictional framework. Otto is put in a Penal Battalion which were units the Germans used to punish soldiers short of execution. A common job, as shown, was disarming land mines. The fighting in the sewers and in the factories is realistic. The trip to the airfield to try to get out was a common incident. Although meant for the wounded, there were desperate soldiers who tried to get on board the transports. The chaotic scene is authentic. The movie also alludes to the Luftwaffe’s (specifically Goering’s) ludicrous attempt to supply the surrounded army. Obviously, the breakdown in discipline toward the end is an accurate portrayal of the situation.

OPINION: “Stalingrad” is an admirable attempt to depict the battle from the perspective of a squad of the losers. We follow them from the sunny beach in Italy to the frozen rubble of Stalingrad. They become recognizable personalities. The unit is heterogeneous, but not too stereotypically so. It reminded me of “Platoon” in this respect. However, it does have some archetypes like the cynical veteran sergeant (Rohleder), the idealist (Reiser), the naïve novice (Muller), and the ambitious officer (Witzland). Unfortunately, the acting is pedestrian and the character development is flawed. Rollo should have been a strong character, but he does not develop into the insubordinate anti-hero he could have been. This was disappointing. Perplexing is more the word for Witzland’s evolution. He starts as a martinet, becomes an officer on the make, and then suddenly gets sensitive towards the enemy and ends up a deserting pacifist. While unorthodox, this arc is ridiculous.

The small unit dynamics are realistic and the soldier talk seems true to form. The interaction between the soldiers is not forced. It is instructive to see that the non-S.S. soldiers behaved like soldiers from any World War II army. Remember that not all German soldiers were Nazi fanatics. The movie also throws in a female Soviet soldier and a boy soldier, but the roles come off as attempts to humanize the Germans because they treat these enemy well. In reality, the Wehrmacht was not exactly sensitive toward those two types. Plus their appearances in the narrative are too plot enhancing. Speaking of which, the whole Bad German role was dripping with cliché.

The plot is not smooth. It does not integrate the big picture into the small world of the squad. It is one thing to depict the “fog of war”, but the audience should have an idea of why things are disintegrating. Too many incidents in the plot foreshadow future developments. This is the kind of movie that when an enemy character suddenly is injected into the plot and then exits, you know they will be reappearing. It was apparently a small world in Stalingrad.

The themes are appropriate. Vilsmaier is interested in filming the futility of war. What better way to make this point than focus on a German squad at Stalingrad? There’s no debating the movie is solidly anti-war. It also tends to be anti-military. Although Witzland and Musk are shown in a positive light, Haller (Bad German) is meant to represent the German officer corps. The other theme is comradeship. In this respect, the film does not break any new ground and does not compare well to movies like “Platoon”. The interplay is average in realism.

In conclusion, I had heard great things about this movie and I had every reason to believe I would enjoy it. It appeared on the surface to be my kind of war movie. Plus I am fascinated by the Battle of Stalingrad and have read books on the subject. I was shocked at how disappointing the movie was. It is very overrated. Sources that I trust rate it as a great war movie. They are wrong! It is not even the best movie about Stalingrad. That would be “Stalingrad: Dogs, Do You Want to Die?”
May 2011
New Iberia, La.
23. Platoon (1986)

SYNOPSIS: “Platoon” is the fictional tale of a platoon in Vietnam in the middle of the war. The unit has plenty of dysfunction and is divided between the dopers and the boozers. It is also divided in allegiance between its two veteran sergeants. Barnes (Tom Berenger) is the hard-core warrior who is not above matching the enemy’s atrocities. Elias (Willem Dafoe) is the disillusioned conscience of the unit. PFC Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is caught between these two mentors. The tension builds to a night battle.

BACK-STORY: “Platoon” is the semi-autobiographical account of Oliver Stone’s experiences in Vietnam. It came out seven years after “Apocalypse Now” and was followed soon after by “Full Metal Jacket” and “Hamburger Hill”. More than those other films, it impacted the movie-going public and Vietnam War veterans. It was cathartic. It became the definitive Vietnam War movie. The film was a big hit with audiences and most critics. Produced for only $6 million, it made $138 million. It was awarded the Best Picture Oscar and also won for Director, Sound Mixing, and Editing. It was nominated for Original Score and Cinematography. Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger got Supporting Actor nods. The movie is ranked #86 on AFI’s Top 100 list. The shooting was done in the Philippines (the Pentagon refused to support the film) and took only 54 days. The film was shot in sequence and this began immediately after the boot camp for the actors. Stone meant the film to be a counter to John Wayne’s “Green Berets”.

TRIVIA: Wikipedia, imdb, Mental Floss, Tons of Facts

1. Oliver Stone served in Vietnam and the film is semi-autobiographical. For instance, the scene where Taylor saves the girl from being raped was based on an incident involving Stone. The Taylor character represents Stone. Stone wrote a screenplay about his experiences after the war entitled “Break”, but he could not get the financing for it so he went to film school. He had sent the script to Jim Morrison of the Doors and he still had it when he died. Stone saw Morrison in the Taylor role. Later, Stone adapted the original script into “The Platoon” and eventually got funding. Stone started with the premise of making a movie to counter “The Green Berets”.
2. It was the first Vietnam War movie written and directed by a Vietnam veteran.
3. The movie was filmed in the Philippines because the Pentagon refused to cooperate with it (for obvious reasons). It was shot in only 54 days for an amazing $6.5 million.
4. Dale Dye put the actors through a two-week boot camp that included digging fox holes, long marches, and night ambushes. The actors were deprived of food, water, sleep, and bathroom facilities to make them angry, irritable, and exhausted. Tom Berenger lost 28 pounds.
5. Dale Dye was the technical adviser and was in the cast as Capt. Harris. He also plays one of the helicopter gunners in the Elias death scene and he was in one of the body bags when Taylor arrives in Vietnam. He did most of the voices heard on the radios.
6. Stone suffered an attack of PTSD on set during the village scene.
7. Keith David saved Charlie Sheen’s life when a helicopter suddenly banked and he almost fell out.
8. Before the marijuana in the bunker scene, the actors got stoned and then felt bad when the cameras were rolling.
9. Lt. Wolfe is used as a how not to lead example in many military leadership courses.
10. Mickey Rourke turned down Barnes and Nick Nolte turned down Elias. Denzel Washington campaigned for the Elias role. Kevin Costner turned down Barnes out of respect for his brother, who was a Vietnam veteran. Stone cast Berenger (usually a good guy) and Willem Dafoe (usually a villain) against type.
11. Keanu Reeves, John Cusack, and Kyle MacLachlan turned down Taylor.
12. The movie won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Editing , and Sound. It was nominated for Supporting Actor (Berenger and Dafoe), Cinematography, and Original Screenplay.
13. It finished third at the box office in 1986 behind “Crocodile Dundee” and “Top Gun”.
14. It was #83 on AFI’s list of greatest movies and #86 on the 10th Anniversary list.
15. The actors chose how to decorate their helmets. Sheen put “When I die, bury me upside down because the world can kiss my ass!” Johnny Depp had “Sherilyn” after his current girlfriend Sherilyn Fenn. Mark Moses put a picture of Alfred E. Neuman with “What, me worry?”
16. In Elias death scene, the bullet blood squibs did not go off (you can see Dafoe holding the firing device), but the performance was so powerful Stone decided to go with it.
17. Stone had red dirt trucked in for authenticity.
18. The movie poster showing Elias with his arm up in the air was based on an acclaimed photo by Art Greenspon from 1968.
19. Stone had an actual RPG fired in the final battle for realism.
20. The final battle was based on a battle that Stone and Dye (as a military correspondent) were involved in. Stone’s 25th Infantry Division was surprise attacked at night by a large North Vietnamese force. Some of the enemy broke through. Air and artillery support were the deciding factors in the American victory. The U.S. lost 23 killed and claimed 348 enemy deaths. The battle is known as the New Years Day Battle of 1968. It has also been called the Battle of Firebase Burt and the Battle of Soui Cut.

Belle and Blade = 4.0
Brassey’s = 4.0
Video Hound = 3.8
War Movies = 5.0
Military History = #9
Channel 4 = #6
Film Site = yes
101 War Movies = yes
Rotten Tomatoes = #63

OPINION: I can still recall the impact “Platoon” had when it was released. Numerous articles examined the effect the film had on the Vietnam veteran community. Many vets claimed it was as close as anyone had gotten to what they had gone through. It was cathartic for many and caused many to open up for the first time. Most critics latched on to the film as the first true depiction of the war. “Platoon” became the first combat film to win Best Picture since “All Quiet on the Western Front”. Add to this the effect it had on the public in general. The entertaining nature of the film made it the definitive portrayal of the war for average Americans. Since that initial onslaught, the film has had a polarizing effect and has strong detractors.

“Platoon” on the surface seems to be your typical dysfunctional heterogeneous small unit movie. Stone does use the platoon to delve into the theme of divisiveness, but this is not a WWII or Korean War movie where each member represents an archetype. No one is from Brooklyn, Italian, a ladies man, a hick, etc. The dysfunction is created by the division between the dopers and the boozers. The acting is top notch. The ensemble is of up-and-comers and they show great promise. Sheen evinces the proper naivete and eventual loss of innocence. The showier roles of Elias and Barnes are nailed by Dafoe and Barnes (both of whom were nominated for Best Supporting Actor).

What sets the film apart from the standard war film is the metaphors. Stone is not subtle in his themes. Barnes and the boozers represent the right wingers in America during the war. Elias and the dopers represent the doves. Within this metaphor is Barnes as the win at all costs warrior and Elias is the disillusioned believer who now feels the war is unwinnable. Most of the platoon represents the lower class cannon fodder sent by rich people to fight their ideological war. Taylor stands out as the rarer idealistic volunteer fighting out of duty to American society. Much of this is heavy-handed, but Stone does not seem to care about making it subtle. For example, the boozers play poker (competition) while the dopers do singalongs (cooperation).

The movie flows smoothly. This is partly due to the fact that it was shot sequentially. The plot moves from soldier life to combat in an ebb and flow manner. The dialogue is a strength and the soldier talk is not dumbed down for the average viewer. “Snake and nape”? Anyone good at context clues should not be too lost.

In conclusion, to do this review, I watched the movie (for the fifth time, at least) and Stone’s commentary version and Dye’s take on the film. Plus the making-of documentary and the other extras. All this confirmed my original view when I saw the movie in a theater in 1986. This is a great movie and still the best Vietnam War movie. This is coming from a reviewer who admires all the other serious contenders (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket).

I am aware that there are some ranters against the movie. Stone is partly to blame by making comments about it being the realistic depiction of the war, instead of a realistic depiction of the war. Some veterans and pro-war types took offense to the negative portrayal of the soldiers and their actions. They assume that Stone was implying the platoon was typical. Stone was not apologetic about that impression. On the other hand, anyone who has argued that the incidents and personality types did not exist in Vietnam is being naïve. For instance, My Lai did happen and the incident in the movie was nowhere near the scale of that event. Besides, I do not feel the movie demonizes the American soldier in Vietnam. I cannot imagine people spitting on vets coming out of theaters. Empathy must have been the most common emotion.

"Platoon" deserves to be in the Top 10, which it is in both Military History magazine and Channel 4. It was hurt by middling reviews from three of my four books. It does have a polarizing effect on critics.

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